The problem with how the west portrays the Orient: Asia, the Middle East and North Africa in Films and Literature

Academic knowledge has been implemented by the west as a tool in the subjugation and oppression of the east

There is a pattern of mostly white Westerners going to the East as a place where they go to find themselves, work out marital problems, sexualize the male and female of the East, finding Pakistan, India,Egypt, Dubai and Africa etc as mysterious and colourful yet oppressive or it is usually the westerner who comes out as the hero or saviour.

With everything going around in the world, the current affairs and post and in the midst of 911 events, terror attacks, the ongoing crisis in Syria, Palestine and Iraq, one thing applies and remains. That is the stereotypical representations of Asians,  Middle Easterners and Africa continue. The representations I am talking about is how the orient is usually described in films and literature as a place which is hot, smelly, loud and the people of the Orient are dehumanised by orientalist in their literary works and films,media etc. Now this does not apply to everything and everyone but have you ever considered some  literary representations of Europe or how europe is usually portrayed in films, holiday brochures,  are often represented as pure, fresh and liberating, whereas the East is irrational and demonic and in need of civilisation, which is influenced by imperialist thinking.

To break it down the Orient is places and people of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. To define Orientalism, I am going to use Edward Said’s definition. Edward Said is one of the most important influential figures in postcolonial theories and he is known for his most significant book Orientalism, published in 1978. Edward Said defines Orientalism as having preconceived notion of the East and Eastern culture, even if one has never been to the East or does not know anyone from the East. This, therefore, distorts the reality of the East and eastern culture. Edward Said also argues further that Orientalism is an imaginative geography. What he is saying is that the orient has been constructed and invented through western literature (and films ) from their perspective of how they see the culture.Orientalists do not come in one form. There are literary orientalists, Art, Music and especially media coverage being orientalist.

I do believe it is important to know such terms as Orientalism because there is so many people out there who do not have a clue. Or maybe you picked upon it but never had the term. This is nothing new as Orientalism has existed for centuries where a subject from the west would go to Africa, India and the Middle East and judge the people and culture and write about it in a misinformed way. This would then be in literatures and paintings where those from the West would develop preconceived notion from these representations. In reality their representations were far from the truth.

Writers, Artists and Filmmakers consistently portray a picture of the East as exotic, violent and romanticised which is as Edward Said asserts is a Western invention of the East and imaginative geography. There are many films such as Thief of Baghdad, The Naked Gun, Aladdin and Sex and the City, which all portray tropes of Orientalism. There is a pattern of mostly white Westerners going to the East as a place where they go to find themselves, work out marital problems, sexualize the male and female of the East and find them “exotic” , finding Pakistan, India,Egypt, Dubai , and Africa etc as mysterious and colourful yet oppressive or it is usually the westerner who comes out as the hero or saviour.Do you ever come across these representations?

These representations are necessary and need to be addressed because they continue to re-emerge throughout the centuries to present. Such representations are as Edward Said states “offers a marvellous instance of the interrelations between society, history, and textuality; moreover, the cultural role played by the Orient in the West connects Orientalism with ideology, politics and the logic of power” (Said, 1978; 2003). Edward Said also notes that television and films and the media reinforce in the way which the Orient is shown and “have a forced information into more and more standardised moulds” (Said, 1978; 2003). Edward Said states that the roles of the Arab “in the films and television the Arab is associated with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. He appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, or cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low. Slave trader, camel driver, money changer, colourful scoundrel”. And in newspapers and headlines, “the Arab is always shown in large numbers. Most of the pictures represent a mass rage and mystery of irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all these images in the menace of jihad” (Said, 1978; 2003).

What Said states here is crucial then and now because if today we look at headlines or articles, literature and films, there is a very high possibility that the above representations are described which are misrepresented. Edward Said also argues in his book Orientalism that the history of the East has been written from a European perspective. So, the East and the West, which he calls the Orient and the Occident, are in conflicted relationship of power where the West, the Occident, has dominated the Orient. This has been done through different forms of knowledge and power because knowledge is power. He says that academic knowledge, historical knowledge, scientific knowledge, and most importantly literary knowledge has been applied by the West as a tool of subjugation and oppression of the East.

The East has become more of a western invention than a place in its own right, and for a long time, it has been “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences,” (Said, 1978; 2003). It has been constructed through scientific writing, historical writing, literary cultures. This East that has been depicted by the Western eyes, according to Said, is a fantasy. It is not a real place; it is not how people lived their daily lives, it doesn’t represent the truth, the culture of the East, it is a western fantasy .If you look at some films and just pay attention to how the Africa and the Middle East is portrayed, You will be surprised on how distorted the place and culture has been represented around you.

Although representations of the Orient have been more extensive in the past, it is still just as relevant, perhaps a little indirect, but the views of the Orient, are still being shaped by representations by the West, America and Europe. It is, therefore, important to look back at how these depictions and portrayals began and re-evaluated the values.Western literary representations of the Orient have been occurring for centuries, where they have continually tried to speak for and behalf of the East and continue to other Eastern people and culture. These representations are important to highlight as there is nothing innocent or truth about them and that is the problem. Because such representations can distance the Orient cultures and their identities to be differentiated and criticised and label the Orient as “they, we” “them” and “us”, which then divides the East and the West which is already happening after recently affairs unfortunately.This is very problematic because it is these small representations like this that often lead to a bigger problem.

Misrepresentations continue in literature and films. I am using a film by Michael Patrick King Sex and the City Two, as an example. The film has four white American women going into the East, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. These characters go into the East thinking that it is all rich, there are desert moons and magic carpets, carrying dos and don’ts guidebooks from America. The child of one of the characters, Charlotte, asks if the East is like Aladdin and Princess Jasmine. This shows that young children are fed unrealistic expectations about the East, which may later on in life affect how he or she see the East and Eastern people.  Although in the film, the characters are in Abu Dhabi, however, it was originally Morocco that they had filmed the scenes of so-called Abu Dhabi. At the airport of allegedly Abu Dhabi, it shows veiled women working at the passport control and security check; there are women who wear the traditional Abaya working at the airport, however no one veiled works at Abu Dhabi airport in reality.

Throughout the film, there is a constant music which is meant to be the so-called music of the East. There’s this built up of this magical lustful music and then this sudden fairytale type of scenes portrayed, and a very orientalised image of white women served tea and dates by middle eastern men. Which is very unrealistic because that is not necessarily the music of Abu Dhabi and neither does this play wherever you go. There is a constant picture of the males and females dressed in the traditional wear. Everyone in the East apart from those from the West seemed to be dressed in traditional clothes including the waiters, chauffeurs. Again, if one was to visit Abu Dhabi or the United Arab Emirates, they will soon realise that that is far from the reality as they are people of all kind of ethnic backgrounds dressed in all types of clothes.

One of the most shocking scenes in the film is when the ladies come across veiled women, who they mock and imply the women of the East are oppressed and have no hormones or sexual desires, completely othering these women. Images as such of romanticising the East are ongoing in British, Hollywood and European cinemas. There is a clear pattern of the terrorists mostly always being a Muslim, from Libya, Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and it is always the character from the east under the scrutiny by CIA and officials. Now, “postmodern times, “the Orient” has been globalised: it is located everywhere, and everywhere it can be subjected to Orientalization, from the one ruling perspective that defines itself as West” ( Sardar, 1999)

Current accounts and affairs that are going on around the world, it is the people of the Orient, who are placed under scrutiny the majority of the time, mostly by the West because they fail to understand those from the Orient because the truth is often distorted by Western representations. That is extremely difficult because the Orient is then understood by the readers, the public as what is represented, which is irrational, violent, backwards, threatening, exotic, mysterious, barbaric, et cetera. Such representations have material consequences, they inform who we are prepared to go to war with, politics with. This all places the orient in a very dark and negative place, and therefore as Said argues that “understanding a vast and complex region like the Middle East in this narrow way takes away from the humanity and diversity of millions of ordinary people living decent and humane lives there.” (Jhally, 2005).They inform who we are prepared to take in as refugees from or not. These representations are not just that but beyond that and are very offensive tropes of orientalism.

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